The most important thing you need to know

All the Writing Advice posts on this blog so far have begun with a quotation intended to illustrate my point. This one does not. That is because I am about to tell you the single most important thing you need to know if you want to write a novel and get it published. When I tell you, you will be disappointed. Either you will not believe me, or you will think it so obvious it does not need saying. So the quotations will come at the end, a chorus of better writers than me reinforcing the point.

So, are you sitting comfortably? Here it comes. To be a writer, you have to write.

That’s it. A tautology, perhaps? An empty platitude? In fact, this is where many people fail. They think that because reading is easy, that writing too must be easy. And it probably is, for a week or two, as the long planned words bubble out of them. Eventually, though, the day will come when they feel empty, when they look at the blank page with fear rather than excitement. “I’ll leave it for today,” they think. “I’m not in the right frame of mind.” But the next day, the blank page is still there, and before they know it, weeks will pass, then months, and the book will die, shoved out of sight so that it cannot reproach them for their neglect.

This might sound familiar; it certainly happened to me. Even if you do manage to return to face the blank page, even if you can write a whole novel in this way, in dribs and drabs as inspiration takes you, I do not recommend it. Firstly it will take a depressingly long time to get your novel finished, if you ever do.

More importantly, though, your writing will not be as good. The parts of your brain which produce your book are like muscles: they benefit from regular exercise, and need to be kept in top condition if you are going to be a contender in the highly competitive world of literature. The good news is that, as you tone up your mental muscles, writing becomes easier as well, and those blank page horrors less frequent.

It is essential to establish a regular routine. What that looks like for you depends entirely on your lifestyle and circumstances. For some, it means getting up at dawn, and writing for two hours before going to work. For me, it meant giving up my social life to spend every evening writing.

However you arrange things, it is better to set yourself realistic targets and achieve them. For example, 500 words a day, 5 days a week, it might not seem like much. But if you can keep it up for a year, you can even allow yourself four weeks holiday, and you will still have a 120,000 word novel at the end of it. If you try to write 2,000 words every day, you might write your book in two months, but you are more likely to run out of steam and become demoralised.

It is better to think of words written than time spent, otherwise you may find yourself spending your writing time staring into space. When you sit down to write, then make sure you write something, anything; write nonsense if you have to. Eventually sense will emerge. But those days when you don’t feel like it, when your brain doesn’t seem to work, when you feel physically sick at the idea of having to face the blank page, those are the days when it is most important to write. That is what makes you a writer. And if you don’t believe me, here comes the chorus:

“You can’t say, I won’t write today because that excuse will extend into several days, then several months, then? you are not a writer anymore, just someone who dreams about being a writer.” (Dorothy C. Fontana)

“I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” (Pearl S Buck)

“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.” (Harlan Ellison)

“Through joy and through sorrow, I wrote. Through hunger and through thirst, I wrote. Through good report and through ill report, I wrote. Through sunshine and through moonshine, I wrote. What I wrote it is unnecessary to say.” (Edgar Allan Poe)

“The secret of becoming a writer is to write, write and keep on writing.” (Ken MacLeod)

“To be a writer is to sit down at one’s desk in the chill portion of every day, and to write; not waiting for the little jet of the blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone ? just plain going at it, in pain and delight.” (John Hersey)

“The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything.” (John Irving)

“Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” (Stephen King)

“If you wait for inspiration, you’re not a writer, but a waiter.” (Anonymous)

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